Munn v. Illinois: Case comment

Author: Akanksh Deekonda, NLIU-Bhopal

Munn v. Illinois: Case comment

Citation: 94 U.S. 113 (1876).

Petitioner: A grain warehouse company in Illinois by the name “Munn and Scott”

Respondent: The State of Illinois

Date of Judgement: Mar 1, 1877


There are fields with the grain on the west. This has to be taken to the east by train or by boat. This used to be a regular culture in the1800. This railroad expanded the connection between the cities across Chicago and the U.S. This had become a hub and this shipping made it possible for the fastest growth rate of grains across the U.S. The Private Investigators soon began building grain warehouses which are later known as Elevators along the harbors and railroad tracks to store the bushels which were made to be shipped by boat or train. There are more than 1 million bushels that were kept in the grain warehouses of Chicago at one time to keep up with demand. The Railways has found it very hard to operate and own the grain warehouses. The private investors are made to step in to buy and build the large grain elevators though they were often situated alongside railroad tracks.

The year 1871 was then regarded with a huge protest by an association of farmers called “National Grange” against the “Illinois State” to make laws that set a maximum rate for the grain storage. Subsequently, relief was given to the farmers by enacting Granger Laws. There are some private grain stores which were opened by Munn and Scott in Chicago. In January 1972, The Munn and Scott therefore, set rates in January 1972. This was because of the service which was higher than what Granger Laws allowed. The firm for this was charged. It was also found guilty as it exceeded the costs of grain. The present case is the result of the appeal which was made by Munn and Scott.

Issues Raised:

  1. Whether the owners of the said company are deprived of their Property rights due to the state enactment unjustly?
  2. Whether the state can create such regulations which affect the Private industries in the states and which are across the boundaries?


Arguments on behalf of the Appellants.

  1. The state had unlawfully deprived the appellants from their property rights.
  2. The title “ownership” basically gives the owner to use it freely for possession, disposition, and Enjoyment.
  3. The state by limiting the free use of the grain sores, depriving the citizens of the free use of land. This also deprived them to have complete control over the property.
  4. The enacted legislation also violates the constitution guaranteed 14th amendment.

Arguments which were made from the Respondents

  1. It was argued by the state that the 10th Amendment reserved all rights for the federal government over states.
  2. The state here issued the legislation in the public interest and this is lawful.
  3. The state did not excessively exercise its authority and it has imposed licensing requirements & maximum rates on the owners of the warehouse.

The Judgement:

It was a 7:2 decision with the Chief Justice Morrison Remick Waite. The State’s regulation was upheld.

The Majority Decision

The court’s decision was a combination of the American Jurisprudence with the English Common Law. Where the court acknowledged that the United States has possessed many British Governing practices after its independence. While doing so, it has also dealt with the circumstances where the private property could be regulated or used for the benefit of the public. The court also noted when can the property of a private person can be used for public purposes. The Grain which is stored is used for the common good by the public and can charge farmers to use the same. This fee should be taken as a toll where every grain bushel of grain pays this toll for its movement to the warehouse. There is a toll for even innkeepers, fishermen, bakers, and ferrymen. The court also found that the Regulation of private industries that can be benefitted for good cannot come under the purview of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Congress didn’t even try to assert the power over the grain stores. Interstate commerce can alone be maintained by Congress. It can be also seen that a state like Illinois, may not properly interfere with federal control without protecting the public interest. Moreover, this situation where grain warehouses participated in interstate commerce didn’t have anything other than that of a cart or a horse. These are traveled across the stateliness which was operated as essential local operations and connected with an interstate mode of transportation. 

It was finally concluded by the chief justice that the warehouse owners are not with the opinion to complain about the said legislation. This enacted law has indeed affected their business adversely. there should have been some sort of regulation that could go in the interest of the common good.

The Dissenting Opinion:

The dissenting opinion was given by the Justices Stephen Johnson Field and William Strong. The judges have argued that the activities of the business which make them obtain a license, regulate the business practices, and set the rates which were the clear intrusions upon property rights and this indeed, done without due process of law. Therefore, such actions are held under the 14th Amendment.

Critical Analysis:

Munn v. Illinois gives a clear and enduring distinction between interstate trade and domestic trade which are within the jurisdiction of the federal government. This has to be freely regulated by the state. The case was statured as a National Grange victory. It also maintains the high rates for which the parties had fought. The case played a vital role in the recognition of the Fourteenth Amendment by the Supreme Court which deals with the Due Process Clause and it could be extended to either corporate activities or individuals.

The legislature has no power over a contract that is solely private. The government, however, has the right to legislate so that people don’t use their property to harm someone unnecessarily. Therefore, when such regulation is appropriate for the public good, the government may regulate. Under the Fourteenth Amendment, the Rules do not infringe due process or equal rights. Therefore, the laws at question do not infringe on the economic authority of the federal government.

This is an early case in which the Fourteenth Amendment was applied after the passing of such an amendment concerning price regulation.  It demonstrates the need for the regulation in which private action plays a vital role in the public interest.


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